Yun Gee’s Masterpiece Encapsulates the Quintessence of Chinese Art with Western Modern Cityscapes

At the age 26, you are probably pursuing your career and hoping to seize every opportunity that can lead you to success. While for Yun Gee, at the age of 26, he became the youngest and the only Asian artist to be invited to submit works for the inaugural exhibition of Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York.  It was legendary to have an Asian artist recognized in America during the Great Depression period when anti-Chinese sentiment was still ubiquitous. At the media preview yesterday, Sotheby’ s Hong Kong presented Wheels: Industrial New York, a masterpiece that Yun Gee created for the reopening of MoMa.

Born in China but raised in California, Yun Gee studied at the California School for Fine Arts, where he met his mentor Otis Oldfield and became heavily influenced by Synchronism. In 1926, at the age of 21, Yun Gee held his first solo exhibition with resounding success, leading to an invitation to France from Prince and Princess Achille Murat. During his time in Paris, he became acquainted with various artists from École de Paris and staged his solo exhibition at the reputable Galerie Bernheim-Jeune.

The Art of Yun Gee. Taipei Fine Arts Museum. 1992.

In 1930, he went to New York for a new chapter during the Great Depression. His endeavour led him to exhibition opportunities in Brooklyn Museum, the College Art Association, Tempo Gallery and Balzac Galleries in the following two years. China’s modern art scene emerged as a part of three inter-related trends, including emigration to the United States, which commenced before later emigration trends towards Japan and France. This glorious chapter was first penned by Yun Gee.

Letter from MoMa inviting Yun Gee to participate in the Exhibition (on the left) and Polo Players: Study for Wheel: Industrial New York (on the right).

In 1932, this particular exhibition originated from a grand construction project spearheaded by the Rockefeller Center, which was rumoured to have outsourced its mural project to foreign artists. This move provoked the ire of many artists in New York. MoMA hence took the opportunity to relocate the museum to its current address on Fifty-Third Avenue in Manhattan and invited 65 artists of American nationality or citizenship to submit their artwork in order to demonstrate the strength and vitality of local artistic production. Yun Gee was invited at that time to participate the event for the grand re-opening.

Wheels: Industrial New York, oil on canvas. Sketch of Wheels: Industrial New York.

The theme of the “Murals by American Painters and Photographers” exhibition at MoMA was “Post-War World”. The museum gave the artists a six-week deadline, during which they were asked for submit a triptych and a masterpiece of 4x7 feet. During these six weeks, Yun Gee refused all visitations, locked himself in his room, neglected both sleep and nourishment, allowing only a large quantity of Chinese liquor to sustain his artistic frenzy. He managed to complete two paper sketches two pieces: a triptych  entitled Merry-Go-Round; Sun Bathers; Modern Apartment, and this masterpiece Wheels: Industrial New York.

The Value interviewed Vinci Chang, head of Modern Asian Art, Sotheby’s, to shed light on how we can appreciate this painting. Yun Gee infuses his depiction of New York with structural composition prevalent in Northern Song landscape paintings, thus intermingling the quintessence of Chinese art with that of Western modern cityscapes. Yun Gee transforms the lofty mountain pavilions into harbours teeming with cargo, quiet waterways into rushing canals, eccentric shrubbery and outcrops of rock into individuals on a grassy plain. Such transmogrifications allow New York’s bustling and chaotic scenes to be arranged in an orderly manner along the same vertical axis.

The structure composed in a bottom-up “Z” direction and consisted of background, middle ground the foreground. Ascending from the piers of Brooklyn on the lower left-hand corner, one passes through a slightly obscured statue Discobolus, only to suddenly alight on a vast grassy plateau, on which a dozen polo players from a circle which appears to move slowly in an anti-clockwise direction.

Yun Gee employed perspective and shadow to great effect, creating a ying-yang fish symbol akin to the Chinese taichi emblem. The wheel-like movement of the polo team represents the life and beating heart of America.

The wheel-shaped polo team dressed in a fashion akin to the Crusaders of the Middle Ages, bringing an implication of the Janus-faced ways in which American entrepreneurs created immense wealth through the exploitation of the working classes.

Yun Gee also includes the sculptural depiction of an ancient Greek discus thrower in the lower left-hand corner in the painting. The motions of the discus thrower from a singular circle, juxtaposed against the wheel formation created by the polo players, which evokes a sense of isolation and helplessness. This perhaps serves as an ironic comment on how America’s self-aggrandizing in economic and military terms often undercuts its cultural impact on the world stage.

In the middle ground, the Brooklyn Bridge enters the painting from the left, slanting into the reaches of Low Manhattan, whilst the Manhattan River and the East River flow ceaselessly under the bridge, with a plethora of cargo ships and steam ships arriving from near and far, approaching the piers of Brooklyn, visible on the painting’s shores.

Brooklyn Bridge’s majestic architecture features finely wrought iron wires is juxtaposed against a transparent figure located below the bridge yet above the cargo. Despite taking up very little space, the transparent figure is situated in the middle of the frame, thus drawing attention to itself. Bathing in the luminous sunshine, the figure perhaps serves as a reminder to warn people not to be lost in the glitz and glamour.

In the background, the biplane which enters the painting from the top left-hand corner appears to pass through sunlight to descent onto the skyscrapers lining the Manhattan skylight, encircling the soaring birds, and the faint tendrils of smoke rising from the factory chimney. The sun is waning towards the West – an indication that the sun may be setting on such unrestrained prosperity.

The painting, estimated at HK$80m – 120m (US$10.2m – 15.3m) will lead the sale at Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong next Saturday (30th September). The piece is the artist’s largest in terms of its physical dimension, a rare piece from the artist given most of his works are done in small sizes.



Lot no.: 1017
Size: 214 x 122cm
Created in: 1932
Provenance: Collection of the artist's family
Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000


Auction details:
Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Sale no.: HK0736
No. of lots: 73
2017/9/28|10am - 5:30pm
2017/9/29|10am - 8pm
2017/9/30|10am - 4pm
Auction: 2017/9/30|5pm